How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings

with Julie Kaplow, PhD, ABPP

In 2022, 34 students and adults died in school shootings, while more than 43,000 children were exposed to gunfire at school. These are startling statistics, but an epidemic that many Americans have grown somewhat numb to. While we’ve become accustomed to expecting more school shootings, it doesn’t reduce the fear and anxiety kids and parents feel. In fact, the inevitability keeps the lack of control top of mind. 

In this episode, I’m joined by the Executive Director of the Trauma and Grief Centers, Dr. Julie Kaplow, to learn what we can do as parents and caregivers to help kids navigate the emotions and fears they feel when a school shooting happens. First and foremost, Dr. Kaplow says we have to talk about the tragedies with our kids. Listen in to learn more about what you can do to empower your kids to navigate tragedy and the resulting fear it often causes.

3 key takeaways:

    1. Do not avoid discussing tragedies with your children; provide them with the space to ask questions and express their concerns.
    2. Focus on instilling a sense of safety and security by reassuring children that the adults in their lives are there to protect and care for them.
    3. Equip children with coping skills to help them manage their anxiety, such as deep breathing and visualization exercises.

Today’s Guest

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP

Julie Kaplow, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed clinical psychologist, board certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. She serves as Executive Vice President of Trauma and Grief Programs and Policy at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and Executive Director of the Trauma and Grief (TAG) Center at The Hackett Center for Mental Health in Houston. Julie is also Executive Director of the TAG Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans and Professor of Psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine. In these roles, she oversees the development and evaluation of treatments for traumatized and bereaved youth and disseminates trauma- and bereavement-informed “best practices” to community providers nationwide. Following tragedies such as Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Fe school shooting, Julie and her team provided evidence-based risk screening and interventions to impacted children and families. More recently, Julie and her team have been helping to coordinate the mental health response in Uvalde, Texas following the Robb Elementary School shooting.

Julie has published widely on the topics of childhood trauma and grief and has served as Principal Investigator on numerous grant-funded programs focused on enhancing resilience in youth exposed to adversity. She is lead author of Multidimensional Grief Therapy, co-author of Trauma and Grief Component Therapy for Adolescents, and co-author of Trauma Systems Therapy. Julie has served as a consultant to the DSM-5 Sub-Work Group on Prolonged Grief Disorder, the ICD-11 Work Group on Disorders Associated with Stress, the National Academy of Medicine (Scientific Advisory Council on Child Death), and the Mass Violence and Children Working Group of the FBI.

You’ll Learn

  • The impact tragedies have on children

  • How to talk to children about tragedies

  • Managing parent anxiety to minimize its impact on children

  • Normalizing discussions of tough topics and encouraging questions


  • Deep breathing — 4-7-8 method

  • Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter to help you get clear on how to be the parent your neurodivergent kid needs. 

  • Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.


Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:00:03]: Sometimes parents err on the side of not wanting to talk at all about the incident that just happened because they don't want to plant seeds or make their kid more anxious by talking about it. But unfortunately, what that usually does is it sends the message that this is too scary and overwhelming to talk about. So we're not gonna even touch it because most often kids have heard about it.

Penny Williams [00:00:30]: Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset Mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the Beautifully Complex Podcast. I am joined today by Dr. Julie Kaplow, and we are gonna have a tough conversation today about school shootings and just tragedy in general and how to talk your kids through the anxieties that come with that, and also through just processing, I'm sure grief and what has transpired and how they're feeling about it. So if you'll start Dr. Kalo and just let everybody know who you are and what you do. Sure.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:01:25]: Thank you so much for having me, penny. So again, my name is Julie Kalo. I'm a clinical psychologist. I am the executive director of the Trauma and Grief Centers. We have one at Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Texas, Dallas, Texas. We also have one at the Children's Hospital, new Orleans. And I'm also professor of psychiatry at, uh, Tulane University School of Medicine. Wow.

Penny Williams [00:01:54]: You wear a lot of hats. So I think just to start out, let's talk about. What we are referring to when we say tragedy, what sorts of things are we talking about? Yeah.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:02:09]: You know, so unfortunately for children across the country, we are seeing so many forms of tragedy, including school shootings, mass shootings, you know, other traumas and upsetting events. And so really what we're talking about from my perspective today is how to address those things with children because we know that witnessing all of that can contribute to their anxiety about returning to school or even leaving the home in general.

Penny Williams [00:02:39]: Yeah, and I think parents really struggle with how to talk to their kids about these things. And a lot of times I see after every event like this, Articles that say, well remind your kids that statistically it's not likely to happen to them. Or, you know, something like that. And I think, you know, there's some validity there of course, but that doesn't necessarily make us as parents or our kids feel any better about what's going on in the world and what might happen.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:03:11]: Yeah, it's so true. And I think sometimes that there's a tendency to wanna get really logical with kids. Hmm. And the reality is that we know that seeing all of this can make them anxious. And so one of the things that we advise parents to do is to really think about first, how to instill that sense of safety and security. So even when parents are nervous, what are the things that they can convey to their kids that will give them the sense that the adults in their lives are there to take care of them, to protect them, to watch out for them? And recognizing that there are adult worries and there are child worries. Hmm. So, reminding kids that it's really not their job to worry about their own safety, that it's really up to the parents and the caregivers and their teachers to make sure they're safe. What they need to focus on is really more child worries, like getting homework done and who are they going to play with after school and you know, what are they gonna have for breakfast? Those are the kinds of decisions that they're having to make.

Penny Williams [00:04:18]: Yeah, and I'm just thinking through that and it just doesn't seem that simple, right? To be able to say, well, you know, the adult should worry about that and you don't need to worry about that. You have other things to worry about. So how do we help kids who still struggle in that way, you know, that are still struggling to kind of accept that and to turn off all the alarms that their body is giving them. Right? Right. And to be able to go forward. Yeah.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:04:45]: I think it's also a matter of helping them understand, you know, what are the things that they do have control over. So sometimes, you know, part of what causes the anxiety is I have no control, right? Yeah. The world is a dangerous place. I have no control. And really helping them to identify the things that they can make decisions about, you know, and that includes feeling safe and being able to use their voice when they don't feel safe. So allowing for that space to allow them to express that. So if they're headed to school and they're feeling nervous, giving children the space to be able to say, I'm feeling anxious right now. And then equipping parents with skills that they can use to help their child to feel better. And so obviously we can't give a pat answer like, nothing bad is ever gonna happen to you, but Right. You can certainly give them coping skills like, Deep breathing or you know, let's envision your happy place. What does that look like? And helping them to visualize that, giving them skills that they can use in the moment when they're starting to feel anxious. And I think a lot of this really does also boil down to the parents' own anxiety. So kids are like sponges. They can sense and feel when their caregiver is anxious. And so, you know, being able to recognize in yourself as a parent, You know what? I'm feeling so anxious that I'm not actually able to help my child. And if that's the case, then we want parents to get support for themselves, whether that is talking to friends, talking to clergy, or even getting therapy. But we know that the more calm and relaxed the caregiver is, the more calm and relaxed the child is.

Penny Williams [00:06:29]: It's so hard sometimes to keep our own anxieties to ourselves as parents. Yeah. They just sort of spill out and I think it takes. Really conscious effort on our part to be sure that we're not putting our own stuff on our kids. Right. You know, for me, I, I actually have anxiety, so just, you know, driving to school with my kid to drop him off after these sort of things happened back when he was in school was really a full on anxiety moment for me, and it was difficult for me to sort of, Keep that to myself almost, and not have that bleed out into the kids as well. But it takes a lot of work. I think, you know, what we're saying here is not easy for parents

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:07:13]: to do. Yeah. And you, you raise a good point that really, you know, we don't want parents to turn into robots where they're not expressing any emotion. And so I think it is important for caregivers to be able to say like, you know, this makes me kind of nervous too, but. Here's what I'm doing to help myself. You know, here are things I'm doing to make myself feel better. You know, it also helps to normalize that after a mass shooting or some form of mass violence, it is perfectly normal to feel a little bit worried about going back to school, going back to a public place. But as the caregiver sort of modeling, here's how I'm helping myself to get through that. And you know, I think the other thing too is creating space for kids to ask questions. So, you know, sometimes parents err on the side of not wanting to talk at all about the incident that just happened because they don't want to plant seeds or make their kid more anxious by talking about it. But unfortunately, what that usually does is that it sends the message that this is too scary and overwhelming to talk about, so we're not gonna even touch it. Because most often kids have heard about it. Yeah. And so we don't wanna send that message. On the other hand, I think sometimes parents err on the side of, and I do this as well, of providing too much information where it's so much that it actually is overwhelming. So really the way we recommend going about talking about these things is to let the child guide the conversation. So you might say something like, You may have heard about the school shooting that happened in Uvalde, and we're all so sad. What questions do you have for me? Or What worries do you have for me? And really letting the child express that. And they may not be ready to talk about it, but it opens the door and it really puts the control in their hands off. Here's what I wanna talk about. Here are the questions I have, and when I'm done talking about it, I can just move forward and you're sending the message that you're there to listen and to answer whatever questions they have without overwhelming them.

Penny Williams [00:09:24]: Right. And I, I think sometimes we don't have answers. Is it okay to tell our kids, Hey, you know, I don't have an answer to that. Absolutely.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:09:34]: And you know, I think, again, being able to express that, that's what makes this so hard is that we don't really have an answer. And that that's what often makes it feel so upsetting is that we don't know why or how

Penny Williams [00:09:48]: that happened. Yeah. I wanna talk a little bit more about control. Because I know that not feeling like we have any control over these things is what, you know, really spurs so much anxiety for us. And so can we give kids a sense of control in other ways that might help them to be maybe more resilient in dealing with this?

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:10:11]: Absolutely. It's a little bit of a, a tricky balance to be honest, because on the one hand, we know what helps kids is. Structure and routine, so Right. You know, after there's been a major tragedy in the us, having them still be eating breakfast at the same time and having the same routine going to school and you know, having the same bedtime routine. All of that is so helpful. But like you're saying, we also want to give them choices and to let them know that they have control over certain things. And that doesn't necessarily have to be related to the tragedy itself. It can just simply be. You know, here are the choices you have today, right? That you get to make, you know, what is it that you wanna have for dinner, or you know, who is it that you wanna call after school to come over to the house, or you know, you get to decide A, B, or C. So absolutely helping them feel like they have some things in their lives that they have full control over, and the comforting feelings that come from knowing. There's a lot that's not going to change that. These are the things that are gonna be stable in my life.

Penny Williams [00:11:23]: Can we talk a little bit about, like for me, my own son had a lot of school avoidance, which came from some anxiety and just from a lot of struggle in school, being neuro divergent. And I always tried to keep this stuff from him because my fear was, He'll never go in the building again. Right. I already have so much struggle getting him to go in the building, which started in fourth grade. So we did this for like eight years, and every time something like this happened, I had that extra layer of fear that it was really gonna impact him in a way that was gonna change everything. Mm-hmm. And I came to realize that he was actually learning about it, and he just wasn't talking about it, and I wasn't talking about it. But you know, I think as parents we try to err on the side of extreme caution. Probably we would call that, and just trying to be as protective as possible. But I think that often that is doing them a disservice, right? We're not talking about it, but you know, how do we work through this extra layer for our neurodivergent kids where. It can really, I think, impact them in a deeper way sometimes. Right.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:12:37]: You know, what I've learned over the years in working with kids is that they always know what they're not supposed to know. Right. So it is sort of like we make the assumption that they haven't heard about this, that we're protecting them from this information. But the bottom line is that they usually find out. And so it's so much better when the information is able to come from a caring adult than hearing it from a friend at school. And I think, you know, you raise a really important point about recognizing your own child's ability to handle the information and what they do with that information. And so going back to really meeting the child where they're at. Not only by allowing them to guide the questions they have, but also by providing very straightforward, factual, and developmentally sensitive information. Mm-hmm. So, you know, I think sometimes again, they might just be seeing a news story on C N N, and it's a lot of information coming in at once and it can feel really overwhelming. But helping them to sort of break down the information in ways that they can understand so that it's just simple, straightforward, and again, opening it up for them to ask questions. So that's really, you know, the best advice I can give, especially for parents who do have children who may be more sensitive to that kind of information or may already be struggling, like you said, with being fearful of going to school. Yeah, just again, really trying to meet them where they are and the best person to do that is their caregiver, you know, their parents. Mm-hmm. Someone who really knows how they'll react to that.

Penny Williams [00:14:17]: Right. And what advice would you give for parents if. A child doesn't want to go to school. Maybe, you know, the first day or two after we've had, um, another shooting or another tragedy, how do we manage and navigate that? And I know it's different for every child. Yeah. But I'm hoping you have some sort of general advice

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:14:38]: there. Yeah. You know, I always like to go with baby steps. So, you know, if a child is literally saying, I am not leaving the house, I'm not going to school. Taking it very simple step by step. So basically saying, okay, how about we go to school for the first hour? You know, like literally breaking it down. Yeah. So that they're able to have small successes over time so that at some point they get to the point where it's no longer scary at all. I think the trap that we run into as parents is when we give into, okay, you're not gonna do it at all, then we'll just skip today. That's when you start to get into that, you know, unfortunate pattern that can happen. Mm-hmm. Where they realize, oh, well my mom listened to me yesterday. She allowed me to not go to school yesterday, so why would today be any different? You know, again, really honing in on what are the small steps they can take that will be small successes. But if you know that your child is truly not capable of getting through a full day of school, what are they capable of? You know? And again, breaking it down into those smaller steps.

Penny Williams [00:15:50]: Yeah. So what's doable for them right at that time, in that moment? Yeah. I always did sort of the same thing too, like what can we do as far as the school day? How much can we accomplish? 'cause if we accomplish nothing, it did feel like we would get stuck there. Yeah. You know, it's so tough to find the balance between the empathy and compassion for Right. The fear that our kids have, the anxiety that they have, and knowing also that they need to go to school or you know, they need to go on with life. They can't just stay at home and high. Yeah. I think it's really tough for parents to find. You know how to straddle that line, sort of.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:16:32]: Right, right. Well, and you know, I think sometimes it does require really equipping kids with some of those tangible coping skills when they're going into that situation. You know, for some kids even having a rock that they can hold when they're starting to feel nervous, that's a reminder of, you know, this is. Something I can hold onto. It's almost a grounding technique like I'm in my body, I can feel this rock. And again, the deep breathing, even though many kids will initially poo pooh it, it is highly effective. You know, if you can teach your child to be able to breathe in a certain way that can calm their anxiety. What we tell kids is that when your body is fully relaxed, it is actually impossible for your mind to be stressed. It's physically impossible, and so really helping them understand that. And the breathing technique that we use, truthfully, we've had kids ages eight and up be able to do this type of breathing, but it's called the 4 7 8 breath. And so we have them breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven and blow it out for a count of eight. And that actually that particular breathing technique has been shown to be highly effective in reducing blood pressure, reducing heart rate. Mm-hmm. And it happens rapidly. And so, you know, again, we don't wanna ignore the child's anxiety. We don't want to make it feel like we're not listening. On the other hand, if we can empower them by giving them certain skills and techniques to use when they're feeling overwhelmed, that's something they can carry with them, you know, for the rest of their lives. That's a really important skill.

Penny Williams [00:18:18]: Yeah. That empowerment, I think is the important key here. And everything we're talking about really. Yeah. Is giving them some control and some. Skills and really equipping them to manage it. I wanted to maybe talk a little bit about the fact that sometimes these things don't work in the moment, right? Like sometimes our kids are too anxious, they're too dysregulated, so should we be practicing? This breathing technique, for instance, outside of those times where they're really anxious.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:18:51]: Absolutely. So I think it's a great idea and you know, we often recommend to parents that even before bedtime mm-hmm. It can be a ritual that they do with you, where you both lie down and do the 4, 7, 8 breathing for, you know, even two minutes and really helping them to gain that practice, I think Absolutely. It's a, it's a great way to handle that.

Penny Williams [00:19:13]: Are there any other resources that you want to mention for helping kids through tragedy? I mean, we've talked a lot about what parents can do. Obviously we can call on the skills of a counselor or a therapist to help as well. Are there other resources out there that parents can tap into you?

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:19:33]: Yes. So one that I'll mention is that we have, on our tag center website, we actually have what we call our virtual learning library. I. So if you go to tag center.org and click on the virtual learning library, we actually have a resource that literally is how to talk to your child about a shooting. And so that's been helpful to parents to just have that in front of them. Yeah. I think also, you know, one thing I definitely wanna mention is that for many kids who've experienced prior traumas or prior losses, Seeing or hearing about another tragedy can be very triggering and can actually, you know, have them be more predisposed to developing post-traumatic stress. And so just being aware of that, that, you know, there are certain kids that are more at risk when hearing about these things, and that's when we would really encourage parents to, you know, seek out a therapist to help evaluate the child and get them the intervention they need. But again, most kids. Who are witnessing or hearing about these things will be resilient. They will still be able to function and go to school and lead happy, healthy lives, but we as caregivers and parents can really help to equip them with certain skills to be able to regulate their emotions and regulate even how their body is coping with those situations.

Penny Williams [00:21:01]: I think it's really important to you for parents to make sure that they're taking care of themselves Absolutely. With how they're feeling about these things, because it can be really overwhelming. And you know, my kid would go into school and I would go home and be freaked out the whole day about my kids being at school right after these things happen. And so we also need coping strategies. We also need help sometimes. To navigate our own stuff, and I just wanted to reiterate that for everyone listening, it's not just about our kids, because so much of what happens for us and how we're feeling affects them, so we do have to take care of ourselves too. Yeah. We will make sure that we have linked up your tag center and that virtual learning library, as well as any other ways that people can connect with you and the work that you're doing. And all of that is in the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/233. For episode 233. Anything else you wanted to add, Dr. Kaplow, before we close?

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP [00:22:05]: No, I just really appreciate you even touching on this topic. I think it's. Top of mind for so many parents, and I think this is just sorely needed. So thank you for talking about it.

Penny Williams [00:22:17]: Oh, thank you. It's such a challenge that I feel like we have to talk about it. If we're ever gonna make any change, we have to be talking about it. Absolutely. Well, I will see everyone next time. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thanks for joining me!

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